ATX Exclusive Interview with Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan

AUSTIN, TX - JUNE 12: Jeannie Gaffigan and Jim Gaffigan attend the "The Jim Gaffigan Show" panel during the 2016 ATX Television Festival at the Google Fiber Space on June 12, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Waytao Shing/Picturegroup)
Photo Credit: Waytao Shing/Picturegroup

When you think of family, food, comedy, and great television, The Jim Gaffigan Show should come to mind. TV Land’s hit series is about to start its second season on Sunday, June 19th at 10pm ET/PT with two back-to-back episodes. This hilarious comedy is co-created by husband and wife duo Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan. We had the pleasure of talking to Jim and Jeannie at the recent ATX Festival and discussed how their show ended up on TV Land, the changes made from the original pilot and The Walking Dead.

We know ATX is over, but we heard you saying that you would’ve loved to attend some of the panels. Which one of the panels peaked your interest?

Jim: A Conversation with David Simon & Tom Fontana. Beau Willimon from House of Cards was moderating it. I would have totally loved to have seen that, and by the way, I haven’t seen Fargo the TV show, and I’m dying to see that. I know that there was a panel or two on that. I would have loved to have seen that as well.

Maybe next year! Can you tell us about how you originally pitched the show to the network?

Jim: Well, Jeannie and I initially approached FOX ten years ago to do an animated show based on our life. Actually, we didn’t have any kids, so it must have been 15 years ago.

Jeannie: It was kind of a Simpsons type show, but about a comedian in New York who had a bunch of kids. It’s true we didn’t have any kids then, but that was the root of the show.

Jim: Jeannie and I had first met before I started the show Welcome to New York (2000-2001) where I had gone through this process of developing a show, hiring writers, and then writers taking it away. I played a character named Jim Gaffigan, and I didn’t have any authority in the writing. I wrote pitch lines, and they’re like, “I don’t know if he’d say that.” I’m like, “But I am him.” (laughs).

Jeannie: We’d get a script on Monday, and just read through it and think “how can this be funny? “

Jim: After 15-20 years in the business, I think I was kind of done with television. I was like, “I don’t know if I want to do it.” Stand-up was going well, and I didn’t necessarily need it.

Jeannie: Stand-up was something we could do together, just us.

Jim: Exactly! Just us.

Jeannie: Writing, hearing feedback from the audience, developing it for our audience, for ourselves, our comedic point of view, etc. We were the complete and utter executive producers of our comedy.

Jim: As we got greater success, networks were interested in doing another television show, kind of the traditional four-camera with a comedian. We were reluctant because television has such a tradition of taking comedians and doing shitty shows. I had seen my friends and my peers go through that mill, and I had personally gone through it with Welcome to New York.

Not that Welcome to New York was a bad show, it just didn’t capture my point of view. Eventually, our agents were like, “Well, what if you guys did it, and you had some authority?”

I’m going to give you the long answer. (laughs). We went, and we pitched it to NBC, and NBC was like, “We want it.” The initial idea was Jeannie and I and the kids, and it was shot single-camera, kind of a…

Jeannie:  A scripted reality show. Sort of like what you see now with actors. That was the original idea.

Jim: Jeannie and I did a script. They were like, “That’s great. It’s a little cable-y. It’s non-traditional. We need an act. We need an exciting incident.”

Jeannie: They said, “Maybe like this, but what if there’s a football game that Jim really needs to watch.” (laughs).

Jim: Jim wants to watch a football game, and he has a best friend that he … 

Jeannie: He’s trying to hide it from Jeannie.

Jim: They were trying to make it into King of Queens. Then they were like, “Are you sure you don’t want to do it with four cameras, can we just add three cameras?” I was like, “No, I don’t want to do a four-camera show.”  The next year, there was talk, and they wanted the show, but they wanted to add a show runner.

Jeannie: A big name show runner.

Jim: Jeannie and I were open to it, so then we went to CBS with a big time show runner. Again, CBS was like, “Sure you don’t want to do this four camera?” We were like, “No, we don’t want to do it four camera.”

Jeannie: They also kind of casted it. I love CBS. There’s a lot of great people there, but the way they do  it is, “Here’s who’s going to play this one.” There’s a lot of influence, and you kind of realize that they know what works for their network, and they’re right.

Jim: It’s like they were presenting it like, “If you want 100 episodes, this is how you do it.” What we were realizing is, we don’t necessarily … We’re not doing this to become millionaires. We’re doing this because we want to do a show that we want to do.

Jeannie: It became clear that their agenda was to make 100 episodes, and just have generational money. It was really scary because it was like, “This is what happens.” I don’t want to name names, but we all know really funny comedians who do a show and it gets canceled because it’s not funny, but they’re so funny, and it’s not fair. You know what I mean? We got sucked into it ourselves. We were like, “Oh my god.” If you are just chasing money and 100 episodes, you’re not going to be able to get the quality.

Jim: We did one pilot, then CBS was like, “Not that one, but do it again.” Then we did it again, and we had this great show, and while we were shooting ours, they canceled all their single camera shows.

Jeannie: The pilot that we made is the pilot that became our TV Land show. It’s the seed that became the show. It had Ashley (Williams), it had Adam (Goldberg) …

Jim: Michael (Ian Black).

Jeannie: All the actors that are on the show now, the leads, are the actors that were in our pilot. We worked really hard to make that happen, and kind of shove it into the network model as a single camera.

Jim: Then, CBS was like, “Look, we’re not doing the single camera thing. It doesn’t get the ratings. It doesn’t get the syndication money.” Again they’re like, “Do you want to do it four camera?” I’m like, “No, I don’t want to do it four cameras.”

Jeannie: Other people, other networks at that point were interested in putting it on.

Jim: We had a studio at that point, we had a lot of different hands in the pie, so then Netflix and Viacom approached us. Netflix was not going to allow for back end, because Netflix is worldwide, so the show airs, and it’s on in Finland, it’s on in Canada, it’s on everywhere…

Jeannie: Financially, Netflix didn’t fit for the people who had a financial stake in the show, the Netflix deal was not good for them.

Jim: They didn’t want that. Then TV Land, which was Viacom, they approached us, and they were like, “What if we did it like this?” I said, “I don’t care where it airs, I just want people to see it.” We proposed, “If it’s on TV Land, and then it re-airs three days later on Comedy Central … ” because people on Comedy Central know who I am. I didn’t know where TV Land was. (laughs).

Jeannie: Jim’s demographic is on Comedy Central.

Jim: That’s when I was approached, and it was also one of those things where Jeannie and I had gone full circle, where we then got the authority to do the show that we wanted.

Jeannie: TV Land was like, “Yes! You guys are going to run it. You don’t need to get this other person who has all these network shows on the air to be the star showrunner.” We had this level of trust that was amazing. It was the best meeting I ever had in my life, with the vice president of Comedy Central.

Jim: There’s two parts of Viacom. There were three parts. He has Comedy Central, and Spike, and stuff like that. Then there’s the children’s, and there used to be music. Now there’s two sections. 

Jeannie: It’s a long, nerdy story. (laughs).

Jim:It’s been this incredible learning curve. Our pilot at CBS versus …

Jeannie: What it’s become.

Jim: Our task is getting people to sample the show.

Jeannie: You can see there’s been an evolution to get our voice into it more. The pilot at CBS was really as much as we could get of our voice on a network-model show. Then because of the beauty of being on a network like TV Land, whose re-defining itself with its own developed shows we’ve really been able to make our show.

What made us popular as comedians, and what made Jim’s fans come out and sell out shows… It’s much easier to get that voice across when it’s just Jim and I running the show and having a network behind us that’s supporting that voice.

Since we’re called Talk Nerdy With Us, what do you guys nerd out about?

Jim: We definitely nerd out about The Walking Dead.

Jeannie: We’re huge Walking Dead fans. Obsessed.

What did you guys think of this last season?

Jim:  The finale was a little bit upsetting. Then again, that shows you that you have your relationship with your show.

Jeannie: I was traumatized. I’m traumatized by the finale of The Walking Dead. I feel like Fear the Walking Dead was kind of like methadone for me, but I’m still … I mean … I’m watching it, but I need my Walking Dead.

Are they going to go back to that horrible night?

Jim: They have to.

Jeannie: We discuss it … We discuss episodes like ever since the first season, we discuss details that might be being foreshadowed and motifs. We’re really nerdy about The Walking Dead.

Jim: I think it’s a great show. It’s also fun to do Talking Dead, because then they’ll give me stuff and I can give it to my kids.

Jeannie: My kids have zombie survival kits, they’re prepared.

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